So here we are, beginning a countdown of the standout records of 2020.
These are not all the good albums of this year, let alone all the albums released this year. I’ve only got so much time to listen and write – at least until someone pays me to be a professional listener (Zuckerberg? Gates? Musk? Anyone?).
So I know there were some quality records that I just didn’t get to hear for various reasons, or didn’t get to hear enough to pass judgement. I’m looking at you Run The Jewels and Drive By Truckers, sorry. And there were some I ended up finding compelling or hard to avoid through playlists each week but was too late to review, or they fell through the cracks, but they have so many good songs I couldn’t just ignore completely. I’m looking at you Nadine Shah and Roisin Murphy.
And then there were albums that were really very good, but just fell out of the list because I had to stop somewhere. I’m looking at you Marveline, Midnight Oil, Emily Barker, Joel Sarakula, Nicole Atkins, Gretchen Peters, Warmer and Tracy McNeil. I strongly recommend you hit the search button on this page, find what I wrote about them and then explore, or buy, them.
Given the high standard of the ones that missed out, you just know the ones that did make the list are very fine indeed.
So I pretty much stuck to albums I reviewed, knew intimately, played often – sometimes obsessively – or which demanded attention in a year not short of distractions. (They’re not strictly in order, but if you’re making a list, well … needs must.)
You’ll find links to those reviews with each album - just click on the title. And in the rare circumstance where I didn’t review it, there’ll be someone else’s review to flesh out the recommendation.
Come back tomorrow for the top 20, and the playlist accompaniment to the top 40. And on Monday close out the year with a comprehensive, packed to the rafters, singing/dancing/fighting/shouting/driving/crying playlist of the songs of the year.
And remember, buy music, don’t just stream it. It’s good for the artists and for your soul,
So now, we begin, counting down from 40 to 21 ...
“Apart from the dark rhythmic grind of San Sebastian and post-punk shape of the clubby Ruby, the shadowed Euro-pulse of Moment, which is both martial and flighty, dank underground and hot Texas club (imagine Butthole Surfers having come to Dusseldorf from San Antonio) is probably my favourite.”
“There’s a power to Apple’s work that lies in part in the way your reaction – not just the first time you hear something but the fifth time or the tenth time – is what the hell was that and how does it get to me?”
“The delicacy is in the way voices and instruments can feel quite febrile, strung together with wires that can feel taut and liable to snap, or gentle enough to be blow away with a strong puff of wind, especially when Iansek sings, but really, on Golden Repair (the third #1 Dads album in nine years) most of the time.”
“It doesn’t need the jaunty roll and faint whiff of Cajun cooking of Lo And Behold, a song that the squeezebox was created for, or the wistful, elegant dance of Glow In The Dark Stars, a song that might redefine cheek-to-cheek, to make the case that we’re in a timeless zone here.”
“On Your Life Is A Record there’s a full band, there’s strings, there’s brass, there’s Clark’s voice holding almost all the middle ground, and oddly enough there’s a definite feel of the pop scene of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I’m thinking post-breakdown Beach Boys, pre-Africa Paul Simon (Apologies) and peak period Carpenters (the sweet soul of Love Is A Fire).”
“This really does sound like bedroom recordings, mistakes and all: as fresh and natural as if they’d plonked themselves down next to you one Sunday morning and cranked out a few favourites. And it is favourites, of theirs at least.”
“These are songs built on land between the poetic bluntness of Gareth Liddiard, the unforgiving eye of Patrick White and a tradition of Australian prose poetry going back more than 100 years, with Scott ever ready to explode the myths – good and bad - of male behaviour and attitude.” Read more here.
“Many of the songs turn on the missed moment and the lost touch, or the making do because that’s better than not at all; of seeing a propensity for going too far but not resisting it, or too far having already passed and too late is looming.”
“In case there’s any doubt about her place in this, ‘I don’t want to get on board,’ Williams says in the long deep sigh that is Big Black Train, one of the few moments of pause and quiet in an album whose engine’s fire is stoked like a puffing locomotive primed for the big climb.”
“Have another listen and those melodies are streaked with subtones of subtle confusion or melancholy or ambivalence. It’s not that hope is absent and joy postponed, rather that things which seemed more straightforward before – say on their debut, Hope Downs – now have been coloured by experience, disappointments and victories.”
“This is such a lovely record. A perfect companion to Jenkins 2019 album, When I Was On The Moon both intimate, but never cloyingly so, collections of voice and guitar telling small, maybe inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, stories.”
“This is an album meant to provide succour irrespective of its individual tales. That Reid’s voice does its work with such warmth, but without overt effort to impose that warmth, that pain, joy, speculation and acceptance arrive as objects of interest and curiosity rather than devastation or rescue.”
“The piano intersects with this almost from another sphere, another life altogether, as if someone has plugged rival files into the one port. Its pattern is simple, its tempo measured, its emotions controlled. The flourishes or embellishments late in the 21 minutes of its run time, come from resonant metallic percussion, adding a kind of early-industrial overlay to a late industrial-meets-rural circumstance.”
“Melody continues its similar rise to prominence. In Like I Loved You we get a gentle excursion which is languorous over alternately smooth and bending guitar, like light refracting, or someone’s finger manipulating the turntable. With the house piano-meets-disembodied backing voice of Never Come Back, the song takes a surge of insistent pleasure in its increasingly layered percussion and lets the naïve melody play atop it.”
“That’s How Rumors Get Started draws freely from ‘70s rock and pop for its melodies, has a synth-propelled ‘80s pop moment which might accompany someone’s need for speed and crunches its guitars in chunky metallic mode, and it rises righteously in moments of gospel.”
Read more here.
“So there are songs played with rough-cut electronic roots and beat poet delivery, somewhat reminiscent of his Thatcher-baiting releases as The Imposter; songs which wear a tuxedo and work to a muted brass accompaniment with jazz roots; some which might remind you of his rhythm-and-prickliness collaboration with The Roots, including snap-jawed guitar; intimate ones that might come from his crooner past, a few tracks later, from the McCartney end of his balladry, and then at the end of the record, a song which nods to Joni Mitchell, specifically both the original and the later, orchestrated versions of Both Sides Now.”
“It’s buoyant and vibrant, leaning into old school dance via the slap-bass/satin shorts Real Groove and the strings-and-silk-maxis of the rather fabulous I Love It, shifting into the ‘80s with the synth bass and robo-voicing Supernova and the remix-ready rolling stomp of Last Chance, then into the ‘90s with the long-limbed stride of Celebrate You and what you’d have to call the very Minogue-esque party funk of Monday Blues.”
“Saint Cloud is all lilacs and creek beds, Memphis skylines and Manhattan subways, love and sobriety, the sound of a cherished songwriter thawing out under the sun.”
“The final element, the deal-sealer, are the lyrics. They’re good: biting and pointed, but also frank and funny; more and more personal but also crossing borders/boundaries/ages. Some of us – ok, people like me – are going to cut you a bit of slack when you nonchalantly kick off your album with a dry, spoken ‘Fuck sorry fuck please will you so kindly start again’.”
“Brutal in its openness and even more brutal in its self-assessments and revelations, Please Daddy looks at life choices almost as furphies sometimes (along the lines of the way to make god laugh is to tell her your plans); recognises pain as neither necessary/cathartic nor impossible to deal with – because after all what choice do we have?; and wonders if we have any right to think we “deserve” good or bad.”
TOMORROW: Albums of the year 20-1 and a playlist to unite them all.
END OF YEAR BONUS: OTHER GIFTS OF 2020 (click on title to read review)